I had a conversation the other day about the balance between recognizing that treatment-resistant depression is chronic and pushing oneself to do difficult-but-healthy things.
It started with a question: What advice would you give someone about dealing with depression?
Personally, I find it helpful to remind myself that depression gets in the way of my ability to think clearly. Depression brain is a liar. It makes me think that I’m a stupid, horrible burden and that everyone would be better off without me, even if they say otherwise. It makes me think that feelings are forever and that I must be too weak to effectively change myself.
It’s really hard to change the way you think, especially when depression is sitting on you, yelling into your ear about how terrible you are. Sometimes it helps to remember that I have a disorder that skews my thinking. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t push myself. It’s a difficult balance; to recognize that my symptoms explain my behavior, but they aren’t the be-all-end-all of what I do.
You know how frustrating it is when a well-intentioned but misinformed person tells you that if you’d just try barefoot ultra-marathon running or hot goat yoga at 5 am, you wouldn’t be depressed? That person is inside my brain all the time, and because I know that it’s unreasonable to expect myself to just *poof* try harder and not be depressed, I’ve always struggled to write something on this subject. I don’t want it to come across in the same way that my brain talks to me, because I would never, ever talk to anyone about their depression in same the way I think about my own. My brain says stuff like this:
“Yeah, you feel pretty crappy today, and you know why? Because you only ran one mile. Maybe if you’d run THREE, you’d feel better. You only have yourself to blame.”
The example that I’d like to set as a person who writes about mental illness is something more like this:
“I still feel crappy, even though I went for a run. I’m glad I did it, though, because I know that it’s helpful – even if it doesn’t feel like it.”
That kind of thinking is really hard to implement, and I won’t lie – I’m pretty far from doing it naturally. It’s hard in part because we know that things like exercise, being outside, and social connection are helpful for depression. How much pressure should I put on myself? How much am I capable of when I’m depressed? Should I be expecting these things to “fix” me? Whenever I ask myself these questions and get bogged down in the details of how much I’m doing, my plans for doing more, why I should be doing x, y, z, I miss the obvious point.
I’m mean to myself.
I’m trying to convince myself that it doesn’t really matter how much I decide to do in miles, minutes, or step-by-step sequences. It only matters that I did a little bit more than I wanted to. It only matters that I did something because it’s good for me, not because I bullied myself into it. It’s good to set goals (or clams, if you’re being fancy) for yourself, and it’s fine to go at a pace that works for you under your current circumstances. I know that for me, I often fall into the trap of expecting myself to function at the same level that pre-depression me did. Sometimes I worry that if I don’t berate myself enough, I’ll get complacent and stop striving to improve. In reality, I know from experience that the motivation to grow returns naturally when I’m feeling better. It’s tough to believe it, but my first priority should be to treat my depression, and everything else will fall into place.
If you’re hard on yourself for not meeting your own expectations while depressed, I relate. A lot of people relate. After all, feeling bad about yourself is itself a symptom of depression. And to be clear: trying to be nicer to oneself is not advice intended to invalidate that symptom. It’s not to say “you’re doing it wrong, just be nicer to yourself,” it’s that combatting negative self-talk with positivity (or at least positive-tinged neutrality) is a strategy intended to treat that symptom.
I’m not very good at it yet, but I’ll keep working on it. Gently.